Christian culture 基督教文化学刊

Kautsky's View of Ancient Christian Social History

Daniel WILLIAMS, Professor at Baylor University, USA



With the turn of the 20th century, various applications of Marxist ideology arose, especially that of the German historian and philosopher Karl Kautsky. He sought to show how Marxist principles best revealed the inner dynamics of the earliest social developments of Christianity as it began in the Roman Empire. It is well known that his Foundations of Christianity (1908) analyzed Christian origins as a proletarian movement which achieved true communism for a brief time.


While Kautsky argued that the rise of Christianity is best illuminated by a theory of economic materialism, he admitted at the same time that “the spirit is stronger than matter.” Indeed, any single approach toward the historical interpretation of Christian origins fails to grasp the latter’s inherent complexity. The sociology of the earliest Christians, for example, cannot be reduced to a proletarian movement of the disenfranchised or Christianity’s attraction to slaves, as Kautsky partially acknowledged. This more nuanced Marxism has prevented Kautsky from making the same simplistic assumptions as Ernst Troeltsch, who argued that the primary initiators of Christianity were drawn from the oppressed or enslaved, or other socially low-strata groups.


The issue of this paper is that Christianity owes its origins to a web of factors that includes theological criteria. What has not been noticed sufficiently is how much Kautsky’s application of Marxism was indebted to German historical and theological trends—perhaps more than he himself realized. Likewise, we find that no one paradigm or method of formulation does justice to explaining the multi-faceted character of Christian thought or the varied social status of the first Christians.



Ancient Christianity, German liberal theology, Demythologizing myth of primitivism, “Quest” literature ,“story of loss”


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